I spent most of 2018/19 in a total state of burnout. Exhausted, overwhelmed and stressed.
I’m writing this story—my story—as a tale of caution, aimed directly at future me. Maybe you’ll find something here for you too.
I thought I’d understood burnout. I’d seen it before; felt it before. I considered myself suitably cautioned to the impact it could have on my life. I wouldn’t be burnt again. Not me.
The early stages of burnout are rarely obvious. I had a busy and important job. I had 10+ direct reports and a lot to prove. The business was scaling up quickly and trying to handle a new management structure. Feeling a bit overwhelmed or anxious just comes with the territory. Part of the job, some might say.
And yeah maybe my patience slipped a little at times. And perhaps I made one or two rash decisions. I’m only human.
And what if you disappoint one person? You’re helping ten others. 9/10 seems like a pretty good success rate to me. You’ll make it up to them later, anyway.
And don’t feel bad if you’re not excited for the seventh call of the day. It’s a 1:1 with someone you’ve been working with for years. How important can it be?
The symptoms of burnout differ from person to person, but there’s usually a common theme: you feel overwhelmed and you’re less effective at your job.
When I feel like this, a day with an empty todo list becomes just as stressful as a day full of tasks. I become completely overwhelmed by nothingness.
The small things matter. Whilst it’s perfectly normal—common in fact—to have an off-day, it’s important to take a step back from time to time and analyse your work life from top to bottom.
Time for some hard honesty. This burnout was directly caused by overloading myself with responsibilities whilst working as VP of Engineering at Loco2. I realised it long before leaving, and failed to correct the damage. This was one of five reasons I decided to leave (perhaps I’ll talk about the others in future).
I’ve never had a problem with saying no to people if I believe something isn’t a good idea. I consider this an important skill of a good leader and manager. But you know what’s really hard to say no to? Helping people.
If I can spend 5 minutes on a job that might save you 10, we’re at a net win. You’re happy, I’m happy that you’re happy, and the company is happy. Happy.
But what happens when you don’t have those 5 minutes? Well, you help anyway and then you eventually write a blog post like this.
I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by kind people. Not a single one of them would have piled on had they known how I was feeling; had I told them. Whilst there was a distinct lack of support from the senior management team, my peers would have gone out of their way to help.
This might sound like a load of self-pity, but I really could and should have done more to make things easier on myself. This is something I’m really trying hard to get better at.
Organisations don’t get away scot-free though. The mental wellbeing of employees is seldom regarded of critical importance. An unnecessary pitstop on the path to success. And what is out there is often reactive; better than nothing, but often too late. Organisations are really pissing away money by not solving this proactively.
Being part of a post-acquisition company that’s losing some of it’s longest serving staff is difficult. There’s a new level of reliance and pressure on the “original” or pre-acquisition staff. Meanwhile senior management are crossing their fingers and hoping the pressure doesn’t send their employees insane. Or, at least, that someone else is there to pick up the pieces when the inevitable happens.
Burnout can have a profound impact on every facet of your life. I found myself working significantly more and achieving significantly less. The extra hours of work replaced time I would usually go to the gym, work on side-projects or spend time with family.
None of my contributions felt fulfilling. I was somehow bored by monotony and overpowered by new stresses, all at the same time. I started getting severe headaches and stomach pains.
Doing anything felt exhausting and overwhelming. I doubted myself as a manager (amongst other things) and became increasingly isolated. I continued taking on more responsibilities in an attempt to feel helpful; and there begins the compounding effect.
They say that every cloud has a silver lining. I think that’s bullshit, but I learnt a lot about myself during this time. I learnt about the sort of environment I really want to work in and the sort of things I really want to spend my time working on.
I took some time to reevaluate my priorities and made decisions accordingly. I set more boundaries and took a long break from social media (which is still somewhat in progress).
I replaced hours of frustration with walks, worked on interesting side-projects and handed off a bunch of responsibilities to others (I was fortunate to have a few people who noticed my struggling and forced my hand in this—I am indebted to them).
As a result, I worked less and, perhaps unsurprisingly, started achieving more again. I also became a father, which does a lot to put life into perspective—though I don’t recommend that as your first step to resolving burnout.
If nothing else, take this as a reminder to look after yourself. Lean on other people, they’re more willing to help than you think. Focus on your mental wellbeing just as much as your physical health. Analyse yourself and your surroundings every now and then, and never be afraid to ask yourself whether you’re truly happy or not.